Finally! Ever since they caught pompadoured con man “Bobby Thompson” (real name John Donald Cody), who greased many political palms while raking in over $100 million in donations to his fake Navy vets charity, we’ve been living with a terrible emptiness in our scandal-loving soul. Now, we realize that a brazen, wild-eyed sociopath like Cody doesn’t come along every day, but c’mon! Would it be too much to ask for a juicy little political scandal that doesn’t involve forcible sodomy?
Well, as it turns out, a perfectly serviceable scandal has been hiding in plain sight all along. And, much like the Bobby Thompson debacle, it has created a host of uncomfortable questions for our illustrious Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (who, if you’ve forgotten, had to return $55,000 in tainted Thompson/Cody donations once the man’s U.S. Navy Veterans Association scam imploded).
The mystery man in the center of the Cooch’s latest ethical donnybrook is one Jonnie Williams, chief executive of tobacco-company-turned-nutritional-supplement-purveyor Star Scientific, Inc. Mr. Williams is, by all accounts, a born salesman, and his gregarious personality and fat checkbook have obviously opened more than a few doors in Richmond’s Capital Square.
Now, getting a bead on exactly what Star Scientific does is a bit difficult. For much of its history, the company focused on “alternative tobacco products” such as Ariva, a tobacco-based lozenge that delivers more nicotine than a cigarette in a convenient pill. But recently, the company has announced that it will stop making tobacco products altogether and focus instead on dietary supplements and facial creams.
But one thing that Williams and his company have always made is friends. And in Virginia, two of his biggest political pals have been Cuccinelli and Governor Bob McDonnell. In fact, Cuccinelli is so obviously enamored of Williams’ business acumen that his one and only declared stock investment is in Star Scientific. He has also, it should be mentioned, received gifts from Williams totaling at least $13,000.
McDonnell has benefited even more from Williams’ largesse, declaring more than $9,600 worth of gifts from the company in 2011 and 2012, and accepting over $100,000 in free air travel for himself and his political action committee since 2009. Even worse, the governor failed to disclose the fact that the $15,000 catering bill for his daughter Cailin’s 2011 wedding (which was held at the Executive Mansion) was paid by Williams. Around the same time, McDonnell’s wife Maureen travelled to Florida to tout Star Scientific’s latest anti-inflammatory product, and later co-hosted an Executive Mansion luncheon with her husband to promote the product.
Why does any of this matter? Well, the fact that Star Scientific is currently engaged in a legal battle with the Commonwealth of Virginia over a $700,000 tax bill (and was forced to repay $300,000 of a nearly $1 million state grant due to its failure to create jobs) does not instill great confidence in the company. Add to that the fact that both Cuccinelli and McDonnell kept their dealings with Williams hidden as long as legally possible, and the entire thing starts to stink to high heaven.
Of course, after years of denying any possible conflict of interest, Cuccinelli has finally recused himself from the tax case, so that’s something. But it may be a classic case of too little, too late—and with new revelations in the case arriving every day, this might finally mark the point where the Cooch’s extraordinary political luck runs out.